Must see sites in Berlin
15 Must-See Sites in Berlin
Berlin, capital of Germany, venue of the Berlinale, seat of the German Parliament, and location of UNESCO-protected Museum Island, occupies a place of prominence as a cultural and economic powerhouse.
The city dates back to the 13th Century and has served as capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, a principality of the Roman Empire, and later the Kingdom of Prussia. After the fall of Germany in World War II, the country was divided into zones each controlled by a victorious superpower. The city itself was divided: West Berlin became a state of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany) while East Berlin became the capital of the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, East Germany). The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, sealing off all access between the two halves of the city and reinforcing the division between eastern communism and western democracy. Berlin’s status as capital of the whole of Germany was restored with the fall of the Wall and the country’s subsequent reunification in 1990.
Now, Berlin is a major tourist destination, with endless places to discover. Let’s look at the 15 must-see sites to visit in the city, especially for those visiting Berlin for the first time. If you are interested in joining a tour, consider joining Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours to Germany. Odyssey Traveller’s tours are especially designed for active senior travellers and offers flexibility for the over-50s eager to see the world.
Odyssey has put together a list of 15 places you may wish to explore across a range of experiences whilst in the city of Berlin.
Easily reached, the 18th Century Brandenburg Gate, modelled after the Propylaeum of the Acropolis in Athens, was commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II as an entrance to the boulevard Unter den Linden which led to the Prussian palace. Now hailed as a symbol of German reunification, Berlin’s remaining town gate has seen its share of historic events, from Napoleon’s army stealing the quadriga statue depicting the goddess of victory on top of the Gate, to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walking through it to meet East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow during the Gate’s reopening in 1989.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
And importantly this memorial sits close to the Brandenburg Gate on a site covering 19,000 square metres. The 2,711 concrete slabs of differing heights give a sense of unease and uncertainty and offer space for visitors to contemplate the senseless violence of the Holocaust. There is an underground information centre where visitors can find information on the victims, as well as photographs, diaries, and letters.
Berlin Wall Memorial and East Side Gallery
Visitors who want to learn more about the Berlin Wall can head to the Berlin Wall Memorial, an open-air exhibit situated on the former border strip on the south side of Bernauer Strasse. The memorial is 1.3 kilometres long and spans 4.4 hectares, preserving traces of the Wall and providing a commemorative site—the “Window of Remembrance”—for the victims of the border regime. A new permanent exhibition explaining the Wall’s political history entitled “1961 | 1989. The Berlin Wall” was unveiled in 2014, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and can be viewed in the documentation centre.
The sombre atmosphere of the memorial is a contrast to the colourful East Side Gallery, a stretch of the Berlin Wall featuring more than 100 mural paintings from artists all over the world. One iconic artwork is the painting by Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel showing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany’s Eric Honecker sharing an intimate moment.
Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast)
After the construction of the Wall, the GDR erected a check-in hall at Friedrichstraße railway station in 1962, to be used by passengers crossing from the former East Germany to West Berlin. For most travellers, this meant being permanently separated from loved ones. Signs at the border crossing point have been preserved, giving visitors a glimpse of the structure’s oppressive atmosphere. An exhibition, “Border Experiences. Everyday Living in Partitioned Germany”, gathers interviews, biographies, and more than 500 original artefacts of divided Germany from 1962 to 1990.
What was life like in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR, German name for the GDR)? The DDR Museum offers some answers in the form of an immersive and interactive museum experience. Highlights include a simulated drive in an original Trabant P601, the most common vehicle used in the former East Germany, and an authentic reconstruction of an East German flat, complete with furniture that visitors can touch, hold, and interact with. This huge, diverse exhibition covers a space of 1,000 square metres.
From explorations of a divided and reunified Germany, step back to the grandeur of Berlin’s Prussian rulers through this 18th Century baroque palace, named in honour of Sophie Charlotte, the first Queen consort in Prussia. Queen Charlotte was the younger sister of George Louis of Hanover, who was crowned George I of England. In 1684, she married Friedrich III (later King Friedrich I of Prussia), the Elector of Brandenburg and the then Duke of Prussia. He gave her a large estate, which became the site of this summer residence. Located in the village of Lietze, it was originally known as Lietzenburg Palace. The palace and the surrounding area were renamed Charlottenburg by Friedrich in honour of his wife, who died at the age of 36. The palace holds a display of the Prussian crown jewels and has a stunning garden.
This elegant square, said to be the most beautiful in all of Europe, was built by Friedrich I at the end of the 17th Century. It is enclosed by three buildings: the Franzözischer Dom (French Cathedral), the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral), and the Konzerthaus (Concert House). This was where the French Protestants or Huguenots settled when they were granted asylum in the Prussian capital, hence the French origin of the name—”Gens d’arms”, which is a Prussian regiment consisting of Huguenot soldiers. In summer, visitors stay for the Classic Open Air series, where the orchestra plays on the steps of the Konzerthaus, and visit the charming Christmas market in winter.
Berlin has its own island of museums, sitting in the middle of the River Spree. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Museum Island consists of five museums built between 1824 and 1930, with collections spanning 6,000 years. The island has the Altes Museum (1830), Germany’s oldest museum, and the Bode Museum, which contains collections of Byzantine art.
Sitting with the museums on Museum Island is the Berlin Cathedral, its magnificent green dome one of the recognizable landmarks of the city. Dating back to the 15th century, the Berlin Cathedral was the court church to the Hohenzollern Dynasty, the rulers of Prussia and who later became the German Emperors. Today, the church serves the Protestant community in Berlin and the surrounding areas. As such, the Berlin Cathedral is not a “cathedral” in its strictest sense (a Christian church containing the seat of a bishop), but it has been called the Dom (cathedral) through the centuries. Its lavish interior—featuring a marble and onyx altar and the elaborate sarcophagi carved for Friedrich I and Sophie Charlotte—is not to be missed.
Museum of Things (Museum der Dinge)
It is exactly what its name describes—a museum of everyday things, presented as they are. It’s a study of German daily life through objects, and a great place to visit for those interested in industrial and product design. Housed in a factory building, the museum centres around the work of the Deutscher Werkbund, established in 1907 by artists and entrepreneurs who were passionate about functional and efficient design.
The Reichstag is home to the German Parliament, but the public can access its rooftop terrace and impressive glass and steel dome. The dome, which sits directly above the debating chamber, offers a view of the parliamentary proceedings and Berlin’s government district. Visitors can also relax on the grass in front of the Reichstag.
Berlin’s Movie Theatres: Babylon/Moviemiento/Kino International
As the venue of the Berlinale, Berlin is home to numerous alternative cinema theatres. Babylon was built in 1929 in the Art Deco style and shows silent movies accompanied by a cinema organ, providing the films’ soundtracks the old-fashioned way. Moviemiento is Germany’s oldest cinema with three auditoriums and a lounge, and screens art house and mainstream films. Kino International, located on Karl-Marx-Allee in the former East Germany, was the GDR’s premiere cinema and is now one of the venues of the Berlinale. It still uses hand-illustrated film posters.
This 386-hectare military-parade-grounds-turned-airport-turned-park is one of the largest public spaces in Europe. Berlin reclaimed the open space after the closure in 2008 of the Tempelhof Airport, which was used by the Nazis during World War II and served as a commercial airport after the war. It is a great place for picnics, kite flying, and barbeques. The old runways are used for cycling, skateboarding, rollerblading, and jogging.
Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm)
Constructed in the 1960s, the TV Tower served as a symbol of East German socialism for decades. It remains the tallest building in Berlin. Visitors can climb up to the tower to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. There is also a restaurant which revolves once around its axis every 60 minutes.
Café-Restaurant Wintergarten Im Literaturhaus Berlin
All that walking and exploring will surely leave you famished. Rest your feet and enjoy afternoon tea at this tranquil garden cafe, Café-Restaurant Wintergarten. The cafe is connected to the Literaturhaus Berlin, which houses the Kohlhaas & Company book shop. This 19th century townhouse has gone through numerous transformations over the years. It served as a military hospital during World War I, became a soup kitchen, a centre for foreign students, a brothel, a nightclub, and finally an important literary venue in Berlin. The Literaturhaus holds regular readings and literary events around the fireplace in the parlour.
Odyssey Traveller organizes several small-group tours to Germany. You can join a walking tour that explores Berlin and the Berlin Wall. If you feel like seeing more of Germany, you can sign up to travel from Heidelberg to Munich, with the Passion Play in Oberammergau as the key feature of the tour.
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